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The Devil Commands

The Devil Commands
Columbia TriStar
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 65 min. / Street Date August 26, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Boris Karloff, Anne Revere, Amanda Duff, Richard Fiske, Ralph Penney, Kenneth MacDonald, Shirley Warde, Dorothy Adams
Cinematography Allen G. Siegler
Art Direction Lionel Banks
Film Editor Al Clark
Original Music Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Frank Skinner
Written by Robert D. Andrews, Milton Gunzburg and William Sloane
Produced by Wallace MacDonald
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Yes, it has Karloff, but The Devil Commands has little going for it except Boris and its own relative obscurity ... a lot of fans want to catch up with this one. The movie is a cheap, goofy and emotionally confused variation on the same misunderstood scientist tale that Karloff found himself remaking umpteen times in the late 30s: Black Friday, The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang, The Ape. The production is slipshod, the script illogical and Edward Dmytryk's direction has a get-it-over-with rushed feeling.


Kindly Dr. Julian Blair (Boris Karloff) almost has his colleagues convinced that he's able to record brainwaves with his new apparatus, but when his wife Helen (Shirley Warde) is killed he becomes despondent. Even Blair's beloved daughter Anne (Amanda Duff) can't dissuade him from the notion that he might be able to communicate with his wife from beyond the grave. Blair enlists the help of a shady medium, Mrs. Walters (Anne Revere). As it turns out, Walters has a psyche so strong, it can generate a powerful electric field. Together they relocate to a seaside town, steal bodies from the graveyard to form a brainwave-enhancing seance circle, in the hopes of making communication with the dead. Unfortunately, Blair's daughter, her fiancee, the sheriff and assorted local vigilantes don't share the doctor's enthusiasm.

The Devil Commands is a terrific title but this story has nothing to do with the Devil commanding anybody, at least not unless we take the fundamentalist position that Dr. Blair's unsavory experiments are inspired by evil forces. Poor Dr. Blair is a victim of a merciless script that robs him of his wife and wastes a lot of time in unconvincing demonstrations of his great discovery. By the time he's digging up bodies (off screen) and covering up accidental killings, there's little hope for him.

I'm not kidding about this script: It's so haphazard, I'm having a hard time remembering what happens, and I just saw the picture yesterday. There are some moody visuals on hand, mainly the ring of metal-suited corpses in Blair's noisy lab, with electric bolts flying all about. He's trying to accomplish communication with his dead wife, so the wired bodies (gee, are they wired in parallel or series?) form a hi-tech seance circle, doing for real what the huckster Mrs. Walters faked when she operated as a spiritual medium.

But what the overeager Blair is doing remains a muddle. He drives away his academic support with the claim that death isn't final, and that we should all be able to communicate readily with those deceased. How his inconsistent 'brainwave recorder' can be turned into a spiritual two-way radio isn't explained, and we also don't learn how Mrs. Walter's talent as a portable generator is going to be of service (she can move in here, anytime, what with our power blackouts). Naturally, Blair is just getting going when those pesky locals gum up the works. They can't leave a guy alone, just because he acts suspicious as hell and won't talk about the snatched bodies or the deaths among his hired help. He's only a nice guy trying to get in touch with with his dead wife, but try telling that to an angry mob.

The very short feature advances in leaps and fits. Amanda Duff plays Karloff's caring daughter but she's either the most incompetent actor in town, or director Dmytryk just couldn't be bothered to monitor her performance. Anne Revere gets a chance to play a variation on Mrs. Danvers of Rebecca and makes a potentially interesting foil for Boris. Such concerns get lost in the general rush.

What's left us is Karloff's admirable professionalism, which always lifts anything he's in. Although The Devil Commands is by no means one of his worst pictures, it's a title for Karloff completists only.

Columbia's DVD of The Devil Commands is a good rendering of an element that shows occasional wear in the form of scratches, etc. Basically, it's a fine image that allows us to wonder over the haphazardly-shot titles, and the elaborate miniature of a house by a stormy cliff that must have been cribbed from some silent Columbia picture.

There are no extras. Trailers for three contemporary thrillers are wisely not claimed as Special Features on the packaging.

The cover avoids showing a full-face image of star Karloff. The big red eye is an arresting visual but one wonders if legal considerations with the Karloff estate led to the decision to use this particular image. I doubt the marketers paid any attention to the film itself as the anonymous Richard Fiske and Amanda Duff get equal billing with the King of Horror instead of key player Anne Revere. The movie tagline in large text on the back cover must hold a record for misrepresention: "This Mad Wizard Kills at will in Satan's Service."

I suppose this is not a terrible release choice for DVD, but we at Savant central are wondering why other Columbia horror thrillers didn't come first. I'm thinking of The Black Room, a far superior & exciting Columbia show with Karloff in a juicy double role that should have been remade by Vincent Price. And although I suppose there's little sense in hoping for a DVD of the excellent, scandalously violent Hammer thriller The Stranglers of Bombay, I believe that all things are possible. Except talking to the afterworld by cooking corpses with high voltage.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Devil Commands rates:
Movie: Fair (good for the Karloff devout)
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: ask the Devil
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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